By Paul Leighton
BEVERLY — The company that plans to demolish one of the city's oldest buildings is offering a plan to save it.
Symes Associates executive Jeff Rhuda said the company will give the 300-year-old building away for free to anyone who wants to move it and will also help pay for the moving costs.
If not, the company will knock it down to make way for a Walgreens.
"It has to be removed from the property," Rhuda said. "It's devaluing the property."
The proposal to raze the building, located at the corner of Conant and Dodge streets in North Beverly, has sparked an online petition with more than 100 signatures and prompted local historians to call for its preservation.
Built in 1715, it is one of the last remaining First Period homes from Beverly's earliest settlement. It was the home of Nathaniel Greenwood, a captain in the militia and a member of the Sons of Liberty, a group of patriots that included John Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere.
The Planning Board has scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. at the Beverly Public Library to consider the controversial project.
Historians and city officials say there is nothing the city can do to prevent the building's demolition once a one-year delay imposed by the Beverly Historic District Commission expires in May.
Rhuda said he talked to one person who was interested in moving the house but has not heard back from him. He said he would welcome calls from anyone else interested in moving it.
"We're talking thousands of dollars that we'll contribute (to the moving costs)," he said.
But one local historian said moving the building is inappropriate and unrealistic. Richard Symmes, who wrote a history of North Beverly called "North Beverly Remembered," said the building anchors that area along with another historic building on the opposite corner of Conant and Dodge.
"It's the way it's always been since the Revolutionary War," he said. "It'd be like moving the Eiffel Tower or something. You don't do it. It would destroy the whole point of the thing."
Rhuda said Symes Associates decided last year to knock down the building once the current tenant, Coldwell Banker, decided not to renew its lease. He said it's been impossible to find a new tenant because the building is in such poor condition.
"We've had a gazillion people through it, and we can't rent it," he said.
Rhuda said Symes received interest from restaurants and fast-food burger joints as well as from Walgreens to move to the site if the building were knocked down. In September, it signed a letter of intent with Walgreens.
If the Walgreens plan falls through or is not approved by the city, Rhuda said the building would still be demolished.
"If it's not Walgreens, it's going to somebody else," he said.
Rhuda said the public criticism over the project has bothered the Symes family, who he said have a history of philanthropy and historic preservation, including the restoration of the Stoneham Theatre.
"We moved a mid-1800 farmhouse in Newburyport to another location on the site rather than demolishing it," Rhuda said. "If there was another way for us to do it (with the Beverly building), we would. It's just sitting there in the way of everything."
Mayor Bill Scanlon said he is taking no position on the project. The plans are under the scrutiny of four city boards and commissions, he said, including the Parking and Traffic Commission.
"I try most of the time not to take positions on these things," Scanlon said. "We have the boards and commissions to let them make the decisions.
"In these cases, there's no way to make everybody happy. You can't unreasonably deny people the use of their land, but at the same time we want to make appropriate use of the land. It will be interesting to watch the process. I think it will be a fairly lengthy process."
Symmes, the historian, agreed that demolition appears inevitable. He said the public should still voice its opinion in the hope of preventing the destruction of other historic buildings.
"There are a lot of other houses of this vintage floating around here. How do we make sure this doesn't happen to them?" he said. "Maybe we should be thinking about the possibility of increasing the power this city has to perhaps stop something for good instead of just putting a delay on it."
Ward 5 City Councilor Don Martin said demolition of the building seems like a "foregone conclusion." His main concern is limiting the traffic impact on an already busy stretch of Route 1A.
"It's horrendous now, and we certainly don't want to make it worse," Martin said. "Anyone who calls, I'm encouraging them to go to these public hearings and be heard."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.